Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

The NDN Girls Book Club is igniting a spark for Native American literature

Kinsale Drake started teaching writing and literary workshops to children when she was seventeen.

She’d help with anything, from teaching poetry to editing portfolios and submissions students sent to fellowships or literary journals.

Drake’s newest endeavor, The NDN Girls Book Club, is not just a bookclub and it’s not just for Native American girls. 

The Diné writer and winner of the J. Edgar Meeker Prize and the Academy of American Poets Prize, said her initiative is designed to grow literacy for Native Americans while promoting and boosting Indigenous authors and publishers.

“We’re definitely underrepresented and excluded in publishing spaces,” Drake said, “I don’t think there’s any lack of amazing Native authors that exist, it’s just hard to feel like your voice matters.”

The book club, which officially launches Saturday but has already hosted events, aims to support Native literature at all levels whether that’s through publishing, Indigenous booksellers, writers, or readers. 

Drake wants to provide literary and writing workshops, host author talks both in-person and online and work with publishing companies to provide free books to Native youth.

In New Mexico alone, only 20% of all Native American students in grades 3–8 are proficient in reading according to the 2021-2022 Tribal Education Status Report.

Drake said there’s been a rise in Native literature and it has been at the forefront of many cultural, political, and social movements. She hopes showcasing these authors will boost interest for Native youth to pick up a book.

“Over the years, we saw the first wave of the Native renaissance and literature hand in hand with the American Indian Movement and critical race studies.” 

Authors tell their stories

She said this moment is a chance for Native writers to take control of their narrative artistically.

“It’s a way for Native peoples to understand, analyze and position themselves in the greater world and what’s happening. It’s a way to historically orient yourselves, and provide context.”

The book club has expanded to hosting free author talks both virtual and in-person. 

Native authors like Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache), Danielle Geller (Diné), and Carole Lindstrom (Anishinabe/Metis and Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe) have all participated in events for their readers to talk about their books and writings.

Sareya Taylor (White Mountain Apache and Diné) is one of the writers contacted by Drake and the NDN Girls Book Club. They are in their third year at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) where they are studying creative writing with a focus in poetry.

Taylor was the Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate in Phoenix, where they first met Drake. From there, the book club collaborated with Taylor to host readings.

Taylor writes about a range of things; from matcha lattes to her grandmas. They’re grateful to be mentioned in Drake’s article with Teen Vogue where she discussed the importance of including Native writers.

Author Sareya Taylor is collaborating with the NDN Girls Book Club to increase access to literature. (Photo by Laura Ten Fingers / Courtesy)

“Kinsale is making sure to be inclusive and outward with the work that they do, just in terms of recognizing Native writers, and especially Native women writers and Native Two-Spirit peoples,” Taylor said.

Taylor appreciates the NDN Girls Book Club encouraging everyone to read books by Native writers.

“I grew up in predominantly white institutions. And the friends I’ve made there, I’ve been able to introduce them to different Native authors and they’ve really enjoyed it,” they said. “Some of them say they’re favorite authors are people who are Native, and they just never knew. It never would have occurred to them to pick up a book by Louise Erdrich, or Sherwin Bitsui.”

Books to Native youth

The NDN Girls Book Club’s greatest contribution is supporting libraries and independent Indigenous booksellers, Drake said.

Through the book club, Drake sends free books to tribal libraries who are looking to expand their collections of Native literature. She says this initiative is to help get Native youth out to their local tribal libraries.

NDN Girls Book Club founder Kinsale Drake is a winner of the J. Edgar Meeker Prize and the Academy of American Poets Prize. (Photo by Erica Elan / Courtesy)

Drake says that, “Libraries are places that are being challenged as we shift to online spaces. Which is really great in a lot of cases. But libraries and gathering places themselves have always been really important for us and our communities. We need to establish more communal spaces where we can gather and talk about literature.”

Organizations like the NDN Girls Book Club are ones that New Mexico could be working with to provide more Native American literature to all students around the state. 

The New Mexico Legislature recently passed three bills that will lead to funding allocations for schools and tribal libraries to provide culturally relevant books, such as the ones promoted by the NDN Girls Book Club. 

The governor signed House Bill 148, House Bill 280 and House Bill 481 that specifically target programs to boost literacy for Native American students.

New Mexico booksellers join the club

Luckily for New Mexico, Lee Francis IV opened up the first Native-owned bookstore in the state dedicated to showcasing Indigenous literature and comics called Red Planet Books and Comics in 2017.

“It’s important to showcase to other folks that we’re not just relics of the past, but that we’re people that have survived, and that we have a brilliant and dynamic future ahead of us,” he said. “We want everybody to come along for the ride.”

Francis (Laguna) not only operates Red Planet but created and hosted the first Indigenous Comic Con in Albuquerque in 2016 and has since expanded his comic con to reach outside the state.

He said Drake is working with Red Planet’s partner, Quail Press, to get books from the publisher and sent to local tribal libraries in New Mexico.

“Let’s build this culture of literacy. Let’s get more books into the hands of our communities, into the hands of Native kids,” Francis said.

He said that the emotional and spiritual sense is only truly felt after reading a book that you’ve connected to and that is personally meaningful.

“But specifically as Native folks, we can see ourselves in these spaces, which takes on even more meaning,” he said.

Francis emphasized the need to bring books to rural areas for Native people.

“How far is it from your home space to the nearest bookstore? I know how far it is from Laguna; it’s an hour to the nearest bookstore.” 

Because New Mexico is so rural, there are not a lot of opportunities, according to Francis. By creating a community, like the NDN Girls Book Club, more Native readers are getting access to more Native literature, he said. 

“You need as many locations as you can to build these cultures of literacy. So if getting books out here as part of the book club is something that people can get in their postbox, that’s another avenue that they can continue to build and become part of a larger culture and community of Native readers,” he said.“It’s also supporting Native writers, which is really important.

The NDN Girls Book Club is great for New Mexico, Francis said, because it allows people in the state to continue to build a community for Native literacy.

“It allows us to support local Native writers because we got a lot of them in New Mexico and in the southwest,” he said. So I think it’s absolutely a brilliant stroke to be able to support folks in New Mexico who don’t have easy access to bookstores or to places where they can find really cool new culturally engaging stories.”

With all the latest recognition that Native writers are getting, Francis said we need to keep pushing forward.

“It’s a start, but there’s still more work to be done and we’re heading in the right direction. For 400 years Native folks were not in the literary world,” he saidWe didn’t really start till the late 1800’s. And now, we’re just seeing so many great works that are coming out of so many amazing Native writers, which is just absolutely fantastic.”

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